This article was first published in my Orange Crate column in the Sun Times when Owen Sounder Jason Crone was on his way to the 2012 Paralympics in London. The local wheelchair rugby player and the Canadian team won silver at those games, and Crone subsequently retired from the national team, but he has returned to compete for Canada in the Toronto ParaPanam games. Semi-finals and finals will be August 13 and 14.

Jason Crone was a fifteen year old defenceman when his neck was broken in a minor hockey game in 2003. Before he was even allowed to sit up in rehab, he was introduced to the sport of wheelchair rugby, and some of its champions were introduced to him. By the fall of 2005 he was playing, but the family's deal was that he had to finish high school. Deal done, he was training with the national practice team and set himself the goal of playing for Canada at the Beijing Paralympics. In a 2010 interview Jason said "Having the CANADA across my chest is one of the biggest honours I can imagine...just a great feeling". The bronze medal around his neck must have felt pretty good too.

Wheelchair rugby was developed...

in Winnipeg in the mid-seventies by Duncan Campell, himself a quadriplegic who advocates internationally for the sport and still plays recreationally . Originally called "Murderball", the game is an extremely physical contact sport played on a regulation basketball court with a volleyball using strategic elements of lacrosse and hockey.

The four member team in this mixed sport is made up of athletes with some loss of function in at least three limbs. Many, like Jason, have had a spinal cord injury – a car, sport or military-related accident. Others have cerebral palsy or neuro-degenerative diseases. Players are classed based on their level of function from .5 to 3.5, and the team's total cannot exceed 8. With the athletes strapped into their customized wheelchairs made of aircraft aluminum, hard hits and spills are part of the game. The play is fast and tough - one commentator described it as "extreme sitting".

The athletes are fearless, and the personal stakes are high. A shoulder injury took Jason out of play for fourteen months . "Like a knee injury in hockey," I said naively. Jason's father Mike shook his head and patiently reminded me that for Jason his arms are his sole mobility – his means of transferring from one position to another, the power for his wheels. In wheelchair rugby, the chairs are propelled manually and braked with the forearms, so every game results in punishing friction burns. Quadriplegics have concerns with circulation, blood pressure and overheating (most do not perspire below their level of injury) that multiply the physical challenges faced by the athletes we are watching this week.

The Canadian wheelchair rugby team has competed all over the world, dealing repeatedly with the accessibility issues of travel, accommodation and venues. Mike and Betty Crone have followed the team, sitting in the stands with all the other parents and partners who have become good friends over the years. Like all families of olympic athletes they are fiercely proud and aware of the determination that has brought their son to this highest level of competition, but these families share more. Each one knows the journey the athletes took to their chairs, and how the sport has given them something they would not let their injury take away. When one considers the focus, endurance and determination
required for these athletes to deal with so many details of day to day life, without complaint, their achievements make even the adjective "olympic" somewhat pale in comparison . Mike Crone says that for him this is truly the epitome of amateur sport.


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